Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Fire is Cool - entry #1 - What are Flames Made Of?

If I were to start a "why fire is cool" list, it would probably reach a length to rival my "ultimate band name" list.  For the sake of brevity however, I will just share the 4 best entries on the fire list, beginning today with entry #1, a blazing introduction into the nature of fire.

Maybe you've had the experience of sitting around a campfire and being unable to peel your eyes away from the smoldering coals.  When this happens to me I have often found myself wondering what the hell IS fire?

Hot coals for staring at.
A question mark made of fire.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Mythical Crysticals" or "Why Crystals are So Awesome"

This past summer, after finishing graduate school I went on a victory lap around the world and stopped by Berlin for some hot eats (döner kebab):

and cool treats (spaghetti eis):

I also stopped by the natural history museum (museum für naturkunde) to check out dinosaurs and stuff:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Solar Beat

File this post under my constant quest to rise above the constraints of my perception of time and space.  The people at made this awesome little animation thing of the eight "classical planets" plus the "pluton" (formerly known as a planet) pluto and the "dwarf planet" (formerly known as an asteroid) ceres orbiting around the sun.  You can speed them up and slow them down and listen to their 10 unique tones.  I seriously spaced out for 10 solid minutes while watching this thing, I encourage you to do the same.

via via Krulwich wonders
Isn't it cool how the innermost planets move soooooooo much faster than the outermost planets?  Makes me think of how a penny circles faster and faster around the central axis of one of those spiral wishing wells as it gets closer to the center.  Conceptually identical.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Rise and Fall of William "Aluminum" Frishmuth

A man named William Frishmuth, a close acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, was once the only person in the united states capable of producing the metal aluminum.  Perhaps the height of his metallic prestige came when Frishmuth was commissioned in 1884 to forge an aluminum pyramid to be placed on top of the Washington monument.  At the time, it was the largest chunk of pure aluminum ever cast.  Here is what it looks like:

But why aluminum?  Why would the US government honor its first leader by making this pyramid out of the metal in which I wrap my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?  The answer

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New World Plant Extravaganza!

All of these plants are originally from North or South America.  The exchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the "new" and "old" worlds that happened beginning in the late 1400s is known as the Columbian Exchange.  None of these plants existed in Europe, Africa, Asia, or Australia prior to then.

yes, that includes popcorn, which believe it or not, does grow on a cob

no Irish potato famine without these bad boys.  also, imagine potato-less pierogi's!?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Of Mousers and Men

This is my cat, Chairman Mao (RIP). Mao (猫) means cat in Chinese. Funny, right?
What else is funny about this cat? 1) He's in a bag, isn't that cute? and 2) He has thumbs! Most cats have four toes on their front paws. Chairman had five toes and at least six claws (one between toes). Many people are surprised to learn that cats with extra digits are fairly common. They are known variously as polydactyl cats, mitten cats, and sometimes Hemingway cats. Apparently Ernest Hemingway was a big fan. Many Hemingway cats still reside at the Hemingway estate in Key West. They are especially common in port towns because sailors thought they were good luck, or at least very good mousers. They can come in a few varieties:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Where does "toxic red sludge" come from???

As you may know, on October 4th a reservoir retaining wall collapsed near Kolontar Hungary, releasing over 180 million gallons of what is being called "toxic red sludge".  Before we delve into the nature of this sludge and why it is produced, here is an insane video of the sludge flowing through Kolontar:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gamepocalypse is coming

Jesse Schell, an assistant professor at carnegie mellon university gave a mind-melting seminar entitled "Visions of the Gamepocalypse" at the Long Now Foundation's SALT series. I highly recommend listening to this podcast (and all other SALT podcasts for that matter), as he is a really energetic speaker and lays out a pretty convincing description about how games are going to become integrated into every part of our lives. The seminar is a bit long though (still highly recommended), so for those ADHD folks out there, here is a snippet of a different talk that gives a decent summary of his basic idea:

In case you're not interested in watching or listening to either, his basic point is that wi-fi and sensors of all kinds are becoming extremely cheap and abundant, and that combination allows you to turn everything into a game. In this case everything mainly involves things related to a consumer society, though the government could get involved as well. I don't think he talked about the possibility for your parents/spouse/family to turn your life into a game, but that seems plausible..."mow the lawn and you'll get a power-up" "wash the dishes or I'll cast a level three polymorph spell on you".

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I came from That??!?

Last weekend I visited the Field Museum in Chicago.  It may come as no surprise to some of you that this museum completely blew my mind.  My friend Willard and I spent almost the entire time in their "Evolving Planet" exhibit, which walked us from the formation of the earth through to the present day.  Afterwards we talked about asteroids and looked at some wicked crystals.

Anyhow, the most surprising discovery from this visit concerned Dimetrodon, which when I was a child was one of my favorite dinosaurs from my extensive collection of plastic dinosaur toys.  My Dimetrodon toy looked vaguely like the one below, minus the "Dino-Strike Clamping Jaws".

What an awesome sail on his/her back, right?  Coolest dinosaur ever, or so I thought until my weekend stroll past the "Synapsid vs Diapsid" section of the evolving planet exhibit.  It was in this section that one of my childhood dino dreams died, and out of the ashes rose what I like to call the phoenix of discovery!  I discovered that Dimetrodon was not a dinosaur, but was instead our ancestor!!!!!  While that sinks in, here are some cool Dimetrodon pictures.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Where's My Hoverboard!!???!!!

Crap!  Here I am in the year 2010, no flying cars, no hoverboards, I am pissed!  Nobody has even levitated anything yet!

J/K!  Levitation exists!

Here is a video of Dutch scientists levitating things like water droplets, cherry tomatoes, and even a frog:

They are able to do this by taking advantage of a property known as diamagnetism, which is possessed by many materials.  Many common things such as wood, plastic, and water are all diamagnetic (frogs are mostly water).  Diamagnetic objects are repelled by magnets.  Diamagnetism can be thought of as the opposite of ferromagnetism, which is the property possessed by objects made of many metals such as iron and nickel.  Ferromagnetic objects are attracted to magnets.  However, this attractive, ferromagnetic force is much stronger than the repulsive, diamagnetic force.  So, in order to manipulate diamagnetic objects, you need STRONG magnets.  The Dutch scientists used a 16 Tesla magnet, which is around a million times more powerful than a pretty strong refrigerator magnet.

For more on this experiment, visit the Radboud Univeristy Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory page.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I Am a Scientist! - part 1

I am a scientist.  Here is me pretending that life in lab is just as I had imagined it as a child...lab coat, frizzy hair, flasks of colored solutions, smoke, and all:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Atomic Rainbow

Here are some pictures of an atomic bomb exploding in space, at night.  In SPACE, at NIGHT! This is light from nuclear reactions, but not the kind that happen inside our sun.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Time Lapse Awesomeness - pt 1

I love to think about how differently we would see the universe if our sense of time were significantly altered. There are a number of illegal ways of doing this, but one legal way of experiencing an altered sense of time is through time-lapse photography.

Here are some awesome time-lapse videos by this guy Henry Jun Wah Lee:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Extinct American Mammals

The idea of introducing wild lions, elephants, and camels to north and south america was first put forward by Paul Martin of the University of Arizona. Pretty wild! He is a proponent of this idea or "re-wilding" because relatives of these animals once roamed all across the americas, but went extinct around 11,000 years ago. Curiously, this was around the time that humans came on the scene.

Straight to the waaay cool stuff though. Here are some pictures and short descriptions of the crazy variety of giant mammals (megafauna) that once called the americas their home.

Starting off with more familiar animals, the Dire Wolf, Canis dirus. This was the largest known member of the canine family, averaging around 5 ft in length.

Moving from dogs to cats, the American Lion, Panthero leo atrox, was the largest known member of the cat family. They averaged around

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Crow

What makes humans special and different from other animals? Is it our ability to use tools? Maybe not, because other primates can use tools too, and so can birds!!! Crows can not only recognize human faces, they can use tools! Here is a crow using a stick to do something crazy:

But it gets better.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Apollo 11 Slow-Motion Launch Video

This is a slow motion video of the apollo 11 launch, closeup on the engines. Be sure to have the volume turned on because the accompanying description rules.

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Mark Gray on Vimeo.


Also, everyone has probably seen the apollo 11 moon-walk videos a bunch, but the later apollo missions had two things apollo 11 didn't have... better video equipment and a ROVER:

Apollo 16 LRV Grand Prix HD from Doug Ellison on Vimeo.

via @nauticalgrandpa via

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Grand Canyon Rules, pt 1

Recently I went to the grand canyon, which is one of the top five most amazing sights I imagine I will ever see in my life. Here is a picture of me at the north rim:

Me, Mind Being Melted.

At the visitors center, on the side of an awesome miniature model of the canyon, there is this amazing quote from geologist Clarence Dutton (1841-1912) that sums up quite well how I feel when standing on the edge of the canyon:

Dimension means nothing to the senses, and all we are left with is a troubled sense of immensity

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Toxies

Since I will someday, within the next few decades, finally reach adulthood, I have been giving a lot of thought to my personal brand. So far this has mainly consisted of coming up with an extremely long list of band names. Most recent addition:

butt nachos

I have also been giving a lot of thought to never-before-seen-on-earth-until-the-dawn-of-the-industrial-revolution-but-mainly-since-world-war-II chemicals, that inevitably find their ways into the environment and into our bodies. Also concerned with this topic is a California-based (of course) group called CHANGE, who also seem to understand the importance of branding:

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Symphony of Science

Not only has Carl Sagan already done all of the most amazing things that it is possible to do,

but he has also been re-mixed:

That was by Symphony of Science, and you should check out the rest of their videos here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Slow and steady wins the race

I've been thinking a lot recently about time scales, how quickly and/or slowly things happen, and how we humans perceive that.

Look at how slowly this mudslide happens!!!! Way more slowly than I thought mudslides would ever happen. This is from southern italy, where 200 residents were evacuated to avoid this really slow mud.

According to, mudslides can sometimes reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The speed of the mudslide increases as the soil contains more water or the slope is more steep. So, just based on what we can see visually from this video, the mud looks a lot like dirt, meaning there is not much water, and the slope is not that steep, so it makes sense that this mudslide is relatively slow. It also makes sense that the slower a mudslide is, the more likely it is to be caught on video, which might be one reason that this is the only mudslide video i can find on the internet. EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE!!!!!!!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rain, electricity, ding-a-ling

Okay, this might get weird, but here goes. The other night I was biking to a friend's house, wearing full rain-gear.

Even with all this gear on I was getting pretty soaked:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


This is what the volcano Krakatoa looked like before it exploded in August 1883:

This is what it looks like now, the three islands forming what used to be the perimeter of the pre-1883 volcano: